As a child, I read voraciously, taking to the English alphabet like a duck to water. Once, when I was bored in third grade, I graphed the number of books I read (y coordinate) over the days per month it took for me to finish (x coordinate), and came out with an average of completing one novel per two days. Not bad for a girl who grew up speaking nothing but Cantonese.

My mother, a stranger in the strange land of 1970s Sydney, Australia, decided that, prior to giving me up to public schooling, she’d instill as much Chinese in me as was humanly possible. She got lucky too, and had one extra year to indoctrinate me because as soon as I entered pre-school, I got the measles, followed by the mumps. By the time I recovered, I’d missed so much school, that according to her, there was no point in sending me back. This suited me just fine, because even at that early age, I found pre-school curriculum boring, remembering only the pink cotton wide pinstriped bedding I had to bring to school for naptime. We each were assigned to a cot, and told to make the bed every time, but naptime always occurred whenever I wasn’t tired, so I spent my pre-school hours feigning unconsciousness, breathing in the scent of a freshly laundered pillowcase that smelled of afternoon sun, listening to other children’s sniffles, and wondering what my parents were doing.

My mother gave up work for six years to raise me, whilst my father took to working graveyard shifts in order to bring in extra money. Growing up as an only child, I was carefully enfolded into my mother’s daily routine. In between household chores, grocery shopping, errands, meal preparation, cleaning, she took the time to teach me Chinese. She bought a pack of flashcards from Chinatown (ones which I yearn to find again today), and each contained an image on one side, with the Pinyin translation and Chinese character on the other side. The flashcards were used as a kind of game and I recall wide, glossy, thick cards with cartoon images.

Cat, “miao”

Car, “che”

Tree, “shi”

Dog, “giao”

Mountain, “shan”

My mother also bought delicate, thin paper and brought out a wide-based ink stone that she herself had used as a girl. Worn, the ink stone was a neutral grey colour, heavy, and shaped like a miniature swimming pool. I remember her hand holding mine, as our fists closed over the ink stick, and ground in slow circles the shallow water into ink. The deep end of the miniature swimming pool filled up with blackness. She showed me how to properly hold a Chinese calligraphy brush – so different from holding a lead pencil – made of animal hair and bamboo, vertically upright with a loose wrist, a hollow palm, and my fingers and thumb delicately gripping, controlling each brush stroke. Dip, stroke, stroke, dip…over and over. I carefully touched the brush tip to the edge of the stone, ridding the tip of too much ink, before applying different levels of pressure to produce individual strokes of each character. Mother would write an example character at the top left grid of each page, giving the stroke order, and my beginner attempts produced a repetition of the same character, row after row.

Water, “shui” , “shui” , “shui” , “shui” , “shui”

Big, “dai”, “dai”, “dai”, “dai”, “dai”

Small, “say”, “say”, “say”, “say”, “say”

Person, “yaan” , “yaan” , “yaan” , “yaan” , “yaan”

My mother’s own brush work always caused a sensation because hers displayed an uncharacteristically bold and masculine penmanship with a strong sense of the aesthetic. She once told me that in order to save money on the printing of her wedding invitations, she hand wrote each one by brush. Guests were not aware that it was she, and during the wedding murmured approval at the strength of the male calligrapher’s hand.

From birth to Kindergarten, I knew no English because none was spoken to me at home. My parents, both immigrants, left English at the welcome mat outside the front door. My father worked as a labourer in a plastics factory, having come to Australia at age thirteen. I cannot imagine that he particularly enjoyed Australian schooling, though his fluency is good, and still speaks English to this day with a jaunty Aussie accent. Along the assembly line, cutting plastic containers, there was no need for his English to improve and he preferred the physically grueling hours of the graveyard shift over learning more vocabulary. Shaping plastic gnarled his already-big knuckled hands, warped nail, and cracked the skin around each finger tip. The English television show he enjoyed was The Benny Hill show, which he let me watch with a slight unease showing out of the corners of his eyes. When my father drove, his only English was swearing at other Australian drivers under his breath, “Bloody bastards! Stupid looking thing!” These comments I pretended not to hear as much as he pretended not to lose his cool in front of his daughter.

As for my mother, by the time her family had fled the Communist upheaval, and eventually settled in Hong Kong, my mother’s education had skipped four grades. Though she was a bright student in Guangzhou, China, her self-confidence in valiantly trying to catch up those lost years never quite regained itself. After giving up six years to raise me, she eventually went back to secretarial work. I’ve spent my entire life reassuring her that her English is good, very good, but she second guesses herself to this day. I grew up always the one to open mail, decipher business letters and contracts, and having to take dictation from her Chinese and translate it back into proper English.

In Sydney, when my parents relaxed after dinner, it was not to a blaring television, but rather to classic Chinese literature or poetry. Such manuscripts were densely printed on the same paper I used to practice calligraphy, bound by red string, and were extremely valuable to my parents. In a time where the Chinese community was small, and access to Chinese commodities not easily obtained, literature like The Dream of the Red Chamber, or The Water Margin, was a luxury, and a necessary escape. Each novel was kept in the dark cavern of an unused living room fireplace.

By the time, I entered Kindergarten, I knew by rote memory one hundred Chinese characters, and was fluent in Cantonese. I could write my Chinese name, which contained a complex ancient character (something to set me aside and make me unique, said my literature-inclined mother. Later on, that one character served to confound my Chinese university instructors). I have no recollection of my first day at Kindergarten, but according to my mother, she took me to the school gate, found my teacher, and walked back out. My hand was held by the soft white plumpness of the teacher’s, as I bawled, uncertain, confused, and completely uncomprehending what this white woman was saying to me. My mother said it nearly broke her heart to see me so upset, herself keenly aware of the enormous cultural and language divide.

Such is the experience of the second generation. Very quickly, however, in school I learned the alphabet, verbs, nouns, adjective, adverbs, and English grammar. I had no hope of reading my parent’s collection of Chinese classics, though I regularly flipped through the meticulously printed pages, admiring the blocky type as the pages rushed past to softly fan my face. After learning my ABCs, the world of English children’s books opened up, and I began to consume books with relish. My parents, though frugal, put aside monthly savings for me to purchase books from a list given by the school. The library became a good friend and child minder, and I gobbled books for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Adventures of Black Beauty, the characters of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, works by Enid Blyton, and C.S. Lewis all found their place of rest in the fireplace.

An aspect that my parents never shared with me was to read aloud. Looking back, I wish they had read me those Chinese classics. Would my child’s ears have appreciated the rhythms and rhymes of Chinese poetry, and of its complexities? Formal written Chinese is nothing like Cantonese, which is considered a spoken dialect. Becoming fluent in any language requires learning how to read, write, and speak however. As my schooling progressed, I came home each day to share what I’d learned. Sometimes it was playground songs which I would sing to my mother in our kitchen. But more and more, as my vocabulary grew, I’d read to my mother. It helped pass the time, fit her pro-education stance, and I think it inspired feelings of pride in her. Language is about communication and all I wanted was to share my world with her. After school, I read while she cleaned red snapper for steaming, washed Chinese broccoli, and minced garlic. I read as she washed the wood of the kitchen floor, myself perched with my legs folded up close as she moved about me with a mop. I read to her as the rice cooker clicked off, the steam rising insistently, while my mother arranged the dinner table with chopsticks. I stopped reading aloud when we sat down to dinner, but started up again, after she cleared the table, and washed dishes. I was my mother’s companion, and English books were mine, so it made sense I shared to her the friends I made in those pages. Even today, she recalls my reading and re-reading aloud of Flat Stanley, a story about a normal boy who finds himself flattened to half an inch after a bulletin board falls on top of him. According to her, I read the book a number of times, but never in the same voice.

Growing up in Australia, an overwhelming awareness of being a foreigner pervaded my childhood. As much as I enjoyed school, I knew I was different and that my family was different from the rest of the other Australian families. The word, and text was both unifying and divisive, and though the English language highlighted her foreigner status, it provide me a way to connect my mother to a land and culture that was not hers, and her to me.

Erica, 34, London UK

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